• Creating Conditions for Success

    When Freddy Paige came to Clemson, he didn’t feel like he belonged. Now he’s on his way to earning a Ph.D. in civil engineering, thanks in part to people and programs that provided encouragement and support. And he’s now providing the same support for others.
    by Paul Alongi

Story update: Freddy Paige received his Ph.D. in Civil Engineering in August from the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences.

When Freddy Paige came to Clemson for a summer program before his freshman year, he jumped directly into calculus, brushing aside suggestions that he start with pre-calculus.
“I didn’t want to show weakness academically,” Paige says. “I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there, and I didn’t want other people to catch on to that.”

Paige, who is from Murrells Inlet, took advantage of the help offered to him and by the end of the class was named “most likely to receive a Ph.D.” He went on to get his undergraduate degree in civil engineering and is on track to have his doctorate by August.
Paige’s experience with the summer program is one of many that illustrate what Clemson has done to engage minorities and females in science, technology, engineering and math. Minority and female representation in STEM fields nationally is disproportionately low, a problem that President Obama made a priority in a five-year strategic plan released in 2013.
Clemson President Jim Clements says that increasing diversity in STEM fields is essential for South Carolina and the nation in order to maintain a global leadership role in innovation. “This is central to our role as a land-grant research university,” he says. “We have many successful programs that are making a difference, but we need to do more. Our commitment to increasing diversity is ingrained in the ClemsonForward strategic plan.”

  • Serita Acker with WISE students


Troubling statistics have raised concerns that vast swaths of the population are being left out of high-paying jobs in fast-growing job markets. Blacks account for 11.5 percent of the U.S. population and hold 4.6 percent of the science and engineering jobs, according to last year’s report, “Revisiting the STEM Workforce,” from the National Science Board. Meanwhile, women comprise about half of all employed college graduates but represent 28 percent of individuals with college degrees who are working in science and engineering occupations, the board found.

Advocates say that while minorities and women are most affected, they aren’t the only ones who lose out when they are underrepresented as engineers and scientists. No one knows what game-changing innovations could become a reality if only a more diverse group of thinkers were educated in STEM fields.

Serita Acker, the director of Clemson’s Center for STEM Opportunity and Diversity, says that while progress has been made nationally, work remains to be done at Clemson and beyond. “We can always use more support,” Acker says. “For example, we’re always looking for corporations that can provide internships and co-ops, where students can get real-world experience. At the end of the day, we’re all working toward the same goal — keeping the pipeline filled with talent.”
The Center for STEM Opportunity and Diversity is the new umbrella organization over PEER and WISE, two programs that are central to Clemson’s effort to put a dent in the statistics. PEER, which stands for Programs for Educational Enrichment and Retention, reaches out to minorities but welcomes all who would like to be involved. WISE is an acronym for Women In Science and Engineering.
Students gather in the center’s newly renovated Freeman Hall office throughout the school year to study and to connect with each other. It’s where students who may be the only minority or female in some of their classes can find a friendly face and someone to share tips, such as which books to buy and what classes to take.


Paige, who is still a regular in the center’s office, began his journey to Clemson at St. James High School, a public school in Horry County. He remembers taking an AutoCAD class with Ricky Cox, who had a son at Clemson. “The teacher was really cool and hands-on with us,” Paige says. “He pushed me toward seeing what I could do in engineering.”
AutoCAD is commercial software for computer-aided design and drafting. Paige says that while he isn’t good with his hands, he enjoys creative arts and that he’s a whiz on the computer. AutoCAD gave him an outlet for his creativity.
Encouragement also came from an uncle who worked as a drafter in Columbia. “You should become an engineer, be my boss one day,” Paige remembers his uncle saying.
Paige set foot on campus for the first time in the summer before his freshman year. As part of a PEER sneak preview, he was going to participate in the Math Excellence Workshop. Paige had to catch a ride with a friend and didn’t arrive in Clemson until 10 p.m. Although he was five hours late, Sue Lasser, who recently retired as director of PEER, and a student host were still waiting for him at Clemson House.
“I really felt like it was a family,” he says.
Paige struggled with calculus in the beginning of the workshop and received a mediocre grade on his first test, but he stuck with it and put in a lot of work. “The way it was structured, you had so much help,” he says. “If you really wanted to do great, which I did, you were going to do great. It really boosted my confidence.”

Paige went on to make the dean’s list every semester except for the second semester of his junior year. “I made back-to-back 4.0’s after that because I had to prove something to someone,” he says.


To create more success stories, Acker has called for more outreach programs that make students aware of the opportunities in STEM as early as elementary school. Many students, especially those from families that have never been to college, will remain in the dark without such programs, Acker says.
It’s also important to have programs, such as PEER and WISE, that support underrepresented students, she says. The mentoring, academic help and opportunities to connect with industry can be transformative in a student’s college experience.
While pursuing his undergraduate degree, Paige served as a mentor and tutor for PEER. The experience made him comfortable teaching and led to an internship. He’s already seen one of his mentees graduate and go on to live out her dream of attending the U.S. Naval Academy.
“It was great to see her grow,” Paige says. “She helped me grow as well. Just being able to play that role and see the impact I could have on someone else’s life is huge.

“You really need programs like PEER. As minority students, we just don’t have that critical mass necessary to make it comfortable to come in and do it on your own.”

Scholarships helped pay for Paige’s undergraduate education, and he graduated with no student debt. His mentoring experience also put him in a position to land a fellowship for graduate school.
Acker says that Paige’s story underscores the importance of scholarships in helping students get through college. “Several private donors have established scholarships for current and new freshman in our programs,” she says. “Their support helps us recruit and retain a diverse population in STEM. I am very grateful to all our donors. STEM is very demanding, and sometimes it takes more than four years to earn a degree. Many of our students work, and it’s not easy. Scholarships give them an opportunity to focus on their very rigorous majors.”


Paige is already helping make the next generation of scholars more diverse. When the Math Excellence Workshop was cancelled due to a decrease in funding, he went to work developing a new summer program, Foundations In Research Experience, or FIRE.
“Understanding the power and importance of the program, I knew something had to be created for the incoming freshmen with the funding we had,” Paige says. “We created FIRE using affordable technology and the already-funded, research-focused resources we had available to us on campus.
With stable funding, we can ensure that Clemson is an institution that prepares future engineers and scientists from all backgrounds with the necessary math skills.”
FIRE will enter its second year this summer and is funded by Duke Energy and the Louis Stokes-South Carolina Alliance for Minority Participation. The program helps meet a 2012 recommendation from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology to “launch a national experiment in postsecondary mathematics education to address the mathematics-preparation gap.”
Meanwhile, Paige has his sights set on becoming a professor.

“I drank the Kool-Aid,” he says. “Like one of my professors once said, I can’t really complain about the state of higher education if I’m not willing to jump into it and get my hands dirty. We need minority graduates, so I need to be someone to help them graduate.”

Paul Alongi is a news and feature writer for the College of Engineering and Science.

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